A Frigid Battle At King Of The Hammers
The Guthrie Name Prevails Again Over The Toughest Course In History
Looking at the final results for the King of the Hammers UTV race, you can’t help but notice that the rock racers dominated in 2019. Those who have experience in the rocks found their way to the top of the leaderboard. What makes KOH so special is the combination of technical rock trails in Johnson Valley, California, and the miles of open desert. The challenge at KOH is to be good at both disciplines. You need to be fast in the desert, but everyone agrees, the race is either won, or lost, in the rocks. Second place finisher Wayland Campbell explains it succinctly; “Everyone can be fast in the desert. If you push it, you can gain seconds. In the rocks, it can be minutes. I gained 5 minutes on the leaders in one canyon alone.”
The atmosphere of Johnson Valley is unique, in every sense. The weather changes are severe and generally shift without any notice. This year Mother Nature raged again with surging winter weather throughout the days leading up the event. Wind, rain, frigid temperatures, and even snow in the immediate area. As if the competitors didn’t have enough challenges with the course itself, they also faced the impact of less than ideal pre-sun and qualifying conditions. Just another clear indication preparation for this race is not for the weak.
Most are aware that the terrain is the definition of unforgiving. The canyons are steep, and the natural erosion causes new rocks to constantly migrate from the canyon walls to the trail below. Once you get a particular trail conquered, a new rock can fall into the line and force you to make adjustments. The desert sections vary from hard packed dry lake beds, to loose dirt, and sand. The common denominator is the abundance of rocks throughout. The entire area is in a constant state of evolution which is only topped by the amazing transformation into a small city with thousands of inhabitants every February. Each year “Hammertown” gets bigger, but as soon as the bonfires, parties, and sounds of engines fade away, it returns to a wind-blown, desolate landscape.
The key to the race is being fast in the rocks, but how is that done? The secret is to keep moving. Every time you have to stop, back up, and take another run, you are losing time. A savvy driver will stick their tires exactly where they need to be, making it look easy, but it’s anything but. Traction, throttle control, and picking the right line are all crucial. The rocks they are negotiating are sometimes the same size as their UTV. It’s downright amazing the places they can go. The same trails are used for the unlimited race where huge tires, and 800+ horsepower engines are the norm. Even the big cars get chewed up and spit out in the rocks. The sound of breaking axles, and smell of burning belts permeate the air. If you have to winch, the time just slips away further. You can sense when a team shifts it’s strategy from going for a podium, to just achieving a finish. Many never make it; the cut off time is just 9 hours. This year’s course was somewhat kind to the competitors, as 28 of the 40 finishers beat that time limit, but 92 UTV’s started. Once again more cars were eliminated than made it to the finish.
This year’s winner, Mitch Guthrie Jr, broke the 5 hour mark; finishing in 4 hours and 52 minutes. For Mitch, it was his second straight win as a driver. He learned how to win from his father, Mitch Sr., who has won the race 6 times. Mitchie, as his friends call him, was his co-driver. “It was 100 percent won in the rocks,” says Mitchie, “You have to see the trails to believe it. Actually, there is no trail, just a line through the rocks. You have to know when to go easy, and when to cowboy up, and hit the throttle. Knowing the car is huge, and I have total confidence in my Polaris. The trails change every year, and with all the loose boulders, they can change from one day to the next.” Mitchie was the number one qualifier, so he started up front. “Some people don’t like to set the pace, but I like to be out front.” He continued, “Let them try to catch me. Once we got in the rocks we had no issues. I never had to back up or got bogged down. Our pit stops were great. We are so excited about winning 2 in a row.”
Second place went to Wayland Campbell. He crossed the line 3rd, but Branden Sims was issued a penalty for missing a VCP (virtual check point). The penalty moved Sims back to 3rd. Wayland is also an accomplished rock racer who competes in the Ultra4 cars. He is a second generation racer, like Mitch Guthrie. His Father Shannon, who finished 4th in the UTV race, is a 3-time King of the Hammers and his sister Bailey also competes in both classes. “This is our fun race,” said Wayland, “We were having a good time the whole way. We started 25th, and when we went back through pit one after the desert loop, we were 5th or 6th. We didn’t pass that many cars so it shows how many had issues already in the desert. We ran a steady pace and had no issues but Mitchie continued to gain time. My co-driver got out to spot me a couple times but we never had to winch. The UTV’s seem fragile to me compared to my 4400 car. They do great, but you have to take care of them. We change the arms, CV’s and axles, but everything else is stock. In the Ultra4 car you have to keep the rpm’s up, and ride the brakes. You can’t do that in the UTV; you’d burn up the belt. We ran the whole race without a belt change. You can be having a perfect day, and then everything goes downhill. My Dad always told me that you can’t win if you don’t finish.”
Third place Branden Sims continued his streak of podium finishes at KOH. He has been on the podium 4 out of the 6 times that he has run the race. An accomplished desert racer, he also comes from a rock crawling background. He grew up four wheeling with his father, and knows the rocks well. He was also one of the few front runners who emerged from the desert loop in the lead pack after starting 19th. “When we got to the first rock trail, we were 4th behind Blurton,” said Sims, “I think he had a broken axle.” Phil Blurton is a two-time desert racing champion but his roots are in rock crawling. He competed in rock racing long before he ever took the wheel of a UTV. Known for the stout cars that he builds in his shop, No Limit Race Development and Manufacturing, it’s rare that he suffers from a mechanical issue, but it just shows how treacherous the Hammers trails can be.
“It’s easy to make a mistake when the adrenaline kicks in,” Sims continued, “In the desert you just go fast. In the rocks you have to make countless, split second decisions. You have to decide whether to risk it, or play it safe. We had an either/or section on the course. We pre ran [both] trails, Claw Hammer and Full of Hate, so we could have gone either way. I chose to do Claw Hammer, but looked over to see Mitch and the others on Full of Hate. We caught them at Jack North, and did well in the rocks but made a mistake in the desert; missing a VCP. We thought we hit it, but we had the GPS zoomed too far out. They have a science for figuring the penalty time. They average the top racer’s time through that section and then calculate the time we saved by not hitting the VCP. That time gets multiplied by 5. The result was a 5 minute penalty that dropped us to 3rd. I chose to build a non-turbo RZR this year because it is narrower. We pre-ran in the Turbo S, and I think we should have gone with that car. We will just have to try harder next year.” Everyone agrees, Sims is overdue for a win at KOH. He has finished just behind 1st so many times that they call him the Queen of the Hammers. He’s ok with that because his consistency is something to be proud of.
Finishing just off the podium in 4th was Shannon Campbell. His name is synonymous with rock racing. He won the first official KOH race in 2008, (the O.G. run was held in 2007 to see if it could even be done), and was crowned King again in 2011, and 2017. Shannon won the UTV race in 2017 with son Wayland finishing second. He missed the podium this year but finished 3rd in the Ultra4 race on Friday.
Rounding out the top five is Jacob Versey. Versey may not be a household name, but he is the defending Ultra4 UTV series champion, and runs the number 1 plate. He’s a talented driver with natural ability. In his first ever time to KOH he entered the race with his boss’s old car and finished 11th. This year he climbed all the way up to the 5th spot. He’s such a hardcore racer that he changed jobs because he was out of vacation time just so he could go racing. Fortunately he was offered a position at Zollinger Racing Products by owner Travis Zollinger. Travis built himself a new Can Am racer, so Jacob’s new position included the use of Travis’ old Polaris car. Who wouldn’t take a job where the boss races, and lets you run his car? Travis also had a good run but missed a VCP that dropped him to the 20th spot. Any finish at KOH is considered a victory. “We qualified during “Power Hour” with the 11th fastest time in the rain,” Said Versey, “Our time was good for the 24th starting spot. KOH is all about the rocks, and we always push for more rock trails on the course. We want it to be hard because we are good in the rocks. I have an aggressive driving style, but since I spent years racing out of my own pocket, preserving the car was always a priority. We have a 2 car team, but we are just a 3 man team. We love the Ultra4 series; it’s the fastest growing series out there. It takes $100K+ to build a desert car, but you can buy an off the shelf car and be competitive in Ultra4.”
The balance of the Top 10 had some surprises. First timers Bryce Menzies, and Dustin Jones both landed there. Red Bull athlete Menzies is a multi-time TORC series short course champion and 3 time winner of the Baja 500; he finished 7th. Jones has several impressive wins for S3 Powersports in the Best in the Desert series, and is an accomplished cross country and mud racer back in his home state of Louisiana. You can now add rock racing to his long resume. He finished 10th. Also in the top ten were KOH regulars Casey Currie in 9th, and Phil Blurton in 8th. Evan Engelhardt took a tough 10 minute penalty for missing a VCP, but still managed a 6th place finish.
King of the Hammers is known as the “Toughest single-day offroad race on the planet.” It ranks right up there with the Dakar Rally, and Baja 1000 for the degree of challenge that it delivers. This year’s event also had the Toyo Tires Desert Invitational for Unlimited desert trucks; won by Luke McMillin. The brutal terrain took out several of the T1 trucks that are considered some of the most technically advanced vehicles in the dirt. KOH is a totally unique event that has spawned an entirely new genre of racing. The action on the course, and the festival atmosphere that is created every year during the week-long event is unlike anything else. They have incredible live coverage of the race that reaches a world-wide audience, but experiencing it in person is mandatory on any enthusiast’s bucket list.